MONTREAL — To be the best you have to beat the best, and that’s what Alex Zverev did on Sunday to capture the Rogers Cup.
He came out of the gate firing on all cylinders, pushing world No. 3 Roger Federer beyond his comfort zone by going for every serve and every ground stroke. He eventually delivered a changing-of-the-guard-type performance to continue his magical start to the 2017 season.
If general consensus coming into this week was that Zverev was on the upstart of a glorious career, he reinforced it right from the beginning of the tournament by saving three match points before prevailing in three sets in his opening match against France’s Richard Gasquet.
Zverev inspired more confidence by rolling through Australia’s Nick Kyrgios, South Africa’s Kevin Anderson and Canada’s Denis Shapovalov without dropping a set. And his 6-3, 6-4 win over Federer on championship Sunday left no doubt about the trajectory he’s on ahead of the year’s final Grand Slam.
With this win—his fifth of 2017—he became one of the only players aged 20 or younger to take down two Masters 1000 events in a season. The accomplishment puts him in the elite company of tennis greats Michael Chang, Andrei Medvedev, Marat Safin, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Beating Federer to do it was icing on the cake.
"[He’s] the greatest player of all-time," Zverev said to Sportsnet’s Arash Madani, just seconds after closing out the match in only one hour and eight minutes.
"Beating him in a finals—not just any finals, but the finals of a Masters 1000—is amazing," Zverev added.
He was full value in the opening set, hitting eight winners and committing only two unforced errors, cruising to 6-3 in just over 30 minutes. He put a bow on the tournament in Set 2, holding his serve throughout and seemingly finishing off points with ease.
The outcome might have been different had Federer been in the type of form that’s led to his best start to a season since 2006.
The Swiss master, who owns 19 Grand Slam titles and has won five tournaments this year, appeared to tweak something in the fifth game of the second set. He took 20 to 30 km/h on average off of his first serve and avoided hitting his patented kicker on his second, which resulted in him being nearly broken at love at 4-4 to give Zverev a chance to serve out the match.
"Had a bit of muscle pain, aches and pains here and there," said Federer afterwards.
But he was more than gracious in defeat, referring to Zverev as one of the younger players who he said are "going to carry the sport to a better place in the future."
Fans who turned out in record numbers this week got a first-hand glimpse of the young German’s potential and were also treated to some wonderful performances from tennis’ next generation of stars.
The 22-year-old Kyrgios entertained them with his trick shots, and 23-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem showed off his skills in a hard-fought second-round match against 24-year-old Diego Schwartzman.
But it was the 18-year-old Shapovalov who stole their hearts by saving four match points in his opening-round match against Rogerio Dutra Silva, by beating former Grand Slam champions Juan Martin Del Potro and Rafael Nadal, by gutting his way through a psychological battle with France’s Andrian Mannarino, and by fighting to the very end against Zverev.
The kid caught Federer’s attention, too.
"I loved watching Denis play," said the two-time Rogers Cup champion. "I think he had the matches of the tournament, with all these great three-setters that he had. Especially the one against Rafa. I think he caught the attention of the tennis world, and rightfully so."
But Shapovalov’s time is likely to come years down the line, and Zverev’s has clearly arrived now.
The 6-foot-6 behemoth, who covers ground as quickly as someone half his size would, has put together all the elements that would make him a great champion. He serves as well as anyone on tour, generates great pace on his returns, is as consistent on his backhand as he is on his forehand, and is as resilient as they come.
Zverev proved it all week.
"Now we’ll see what happens for the rest of the year," said Federer. "He’s had a lot of success already. Five titles in one year is not easy."
Winning the U.S. Open in a couple of weeks’ time would be an even bigger challenge for Zverev, but after showing what he had against Federer anything seems possible for him.